Run on it
Mastering the contradictions in American life
I was paging through one of my notebooks looking for something I had written so I wouldn’t forget it when I came across this note I had jotted down recently: “How can they (Republicans) be the party of the blue-collar worker when they just voted against the greatest blue collar jobs bill since the Interstate Highway Act?”
That’s it in a nutshell right there – a description of one of the great contradictions in American life. Do you remember Thomas Frank’s book, “What’s the matter with Kansas?” He wrote an entire book seeking to discover what had transformed Kansas from the center of left-wing populism in the 1890’s to a state controlled by right-wing fundamentalist pro-business Christians in the 1990’s. There was a basic contradiction at the heart of his inquiry: why do low to middle class conservative white people consistently vote against their own interests? Frank concluded that it’s not economic issues that have driven the conservative backlash since Reagan. It is what we now call the culture war: abortion, guns, teaching evolution in public schools, the Supreme Court decisions that have enforced the barrier between church and state.
He asked, why did the single poorest county in the United States, MacPherson County, Nebraska, vote for George W. Bush in 1990 by over 80 percent? “All they have to show for their Republican loyalty,” Frank wrote, “are lower wages, more dangerous jobs, dirtier air, a new overlord class that comports itself like King Farouk—and, of course, a crap culture whose moral free fall continues without significant interference from the grandstanding Christers whom they send triumphantly back to Washington every couple of years.” He even speculated that conservative Republicans pick culture war fights they know they can’t win so they can keep their voters in a constant state of anger and resentment while behind their backs they line the pockets of billionaires and give tax breaks to golf clubs and fly around the country on Gulfstreams.
It was an enormously influential book at the time it was published in 2004. Frank blamed the culture war for the conservative, largely white voters’ embrace of Bush in 2000. The same people voted for Trump in 2016 and 2020 not because the Republican Party represents their interests, but simply because they wanted to. Republicans don’t have to work to be the party of blue-collar workers because those voters have come to them, not the other way around. Just as we Democrats don’t get to choose the issues Republicans decide to run on, we don’t get to tell voters which issues to vote on. We can’t go around the country telling voters critical race theory is a fake issue, that it isn’t even taught in schools, because we don’t get to tell them what to focus on. While Republicans run around being against everything, what we can do is be for the stuff that voters actually like. I’m not saying that being positive beats being negative, but I am saying that being for the stuff that makes a real difference in peoples’ lives works, so run on it.
Gay rights is a perfect, if forgotten example. For decades it was a toxic issue. Every politician who embraced it paid a price. Bill Clinton had to back off his promise to integrate gays into the military in 1993 and settled for the hideous, unworkable “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy instead. But look at what’s happened since. Republicans are still trying to play what we might call the “gay card” with anti-trans rhetoric and anti-trans laws in red states, but it’s a last desperate attempt to breathe life into a dead issue. It turned out that gay rights really are human rights. Nobody really understood before how many Americans have LGBT people in their families, but now we do. When Gallup first polled legal recognition of same sex marriage in 1996, it had only 27 percent support. Last summer when Gallup polled the same question, same sex marriage had a record 70 percent support. Gay rights have made people’s lives better. It’s made families’ lives better. People like it. Run on it.
Polling on the infrastructure bill is almost that high. An ABC News/Washington Post poll conducted November 7-10 after the final passage of the bill found 63 percent of Americans support it. There is a partisan divide in support, with most Republicans opposed to the bill, but the bill gets a huge majority of support among Democrats and a solid majority of Independents. The numbers for the infrastructure bill are way, way better than Obamacare got after its passage. But a KFF tracking poll in mid-October found 58 percent support among all American adults for Obamacare, with only 41 percent opposed. As people have used the health insurance provided under Obamacare either by private insurers or expanded Medicaid, they’ve found that it works. They like it. Run on it.
About 7 in 10 voters support a public health insurance option, according to a poll conducted by Morning Consult/Politico in late March. That figure includes 80 percent of Democrats and 56 percent of Republicans. Support for a Medicare for all single-payer programs remains at 55 percent, unchanged since the onset of the COVID pandemic in early 2020. A June poll by Data For Progress showed that 83 percent of all likely voters support expanding Medicare to cover hearing, vision and dental care. That number includes 86 percent of those over 45. Support also crossed party lines, with 89 percent Democratic support, 82 percent of Independents, and 76 percent of Republicans in favor. People have gotten a taste for expanded health coverage under Obamacare. It’s easier, it’s cheaper, and it works. It helps their families, and they like it. Run on it.
Fox News reported yesterday that despite the passage of the infrastructure bill and its broad popularity, “it is not helping Biden boost his flagging poll numbers or aiding congressional Democrats hoping to retain the razor-thin majorities in next year’s midterm elections.” Biden hit the road today touting the bill in New Hampshire, he’ll appear at a new GM electric car plant in Detroit tomorrow, and Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg and other cabinet members are expected to join in with appearances around the country. That’s great but run on it.
Every time new rebar and concrete is slapped on a sagging bridge, there should be Democrats on the scene blasting airhorns if necessary to get attention. People will drive on repaved roads, they’ll cross repaired bridges, they’ll take the public transportation that’s part of the overall infrastructure package. Let ‘em know who is responsible. The pitch should be, if you like these improvements, there’s more where they came from. Run on it.
Lies about stuff like critical race theory have a short shelf life. New roads and repaired bridges will be around when Marjorie Taylor Greene isn’t being lampooned on Saturday Night Live anymore because nobody will remember who she is. Same with loons like Gosar and Gaetz and Boebert and the rest of them. But people in their districts will still be driving across bridges they don’t have to worry about because they were repaired with the Democrats’ infrastructure bill. Run on it.
If and when the Supreme Court overturns Roe v Wade, Democrats will have something to run against: an out of control right-wing Republican court that is taking away people’s rights rather than protecting them and making women’s lives miserable in states from sea to shining sea. But until then, there is no contradiction whatsoever in being for the stuff that people like. There are voters out there just waiting to hear something to be happy about. We’re giving it to them. Run on it.
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